Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman

Commissioned as part of the Canongate Myth series, which in itself will anger some people, Pullman's re-imagining of the gospel story was always going to be controversial.

The conceit that Jesus and Christ are twins is clever and intriguing.  It allows Pullman to play with the duality of the Christian - as opposed to the historical - Jesus Christ.  The writing is, of course, beautifully simple, the chapters short and snappy.  The characterisation, however, is zero and thus the reader can never get fully involved with the narrative - we cannot identify with these people, and whether this is intentional or not, I feel the book suffers as a result.

The narrative is essentially that of the gospels.  In a sense it is about the writing of the gospels as Christ follows his brother around, recording his words and deeds.  There is a dimension added by the stranger who visits Christ and collects the written records from him.  About halfway through he reveals himself to be an angel, though we never learn his name.  This is Pullman's masterstroke as far as I am concerned - the stranger is the one character who stayed with me after I had finished reading.  The Bible gives us the enigma of Jesus Christ, Pullman gives us the enigma of the stranger.

The reason for the twins is fairly obvious from the outset.  That is not a criticism.  Pullman's aim, it seems to me, has been to contrast the very human Jesus - a force for freedom - with the restrictive, censorious church that was founded in his name.  It is a subject I often think about myself; I don't believe in God or religion but I absolutely accept the historical truth of Christ and try to disentangle his teaching from the manufactured myth.  My conclusions are by and large the same as Pullman's.

This is not a book you are meant to enjoy reading.  It is a book intended to make you think.  I thought whilst reading it.  I am still thinking about it.  It's a major work by a major writer.  How can a dedicated bibliomaniac not read it?

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